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Activism is an art, so why not use art to promote activism?
That thinking is bringing together three progressive activist groups and a theater company, all based in Hunterdon County, to promote racial justice.
The groups — Progressive Hunterdon Democrats (PHD), Indivisible Garden State Values (IGSV), and the Hunterdon County Anti-Racism Coalition (HCARC) — are promoting their concerns about racism and discrimination with two free events.
On Tuesday, Oct. 24, members of the Meta Theatre Co. will present an interactive performance in which audience members will be encourage to take part in role-playing in scenarios about social justice.
As a follow-up, on Thursday, Nov. 9, the performers and representatives of the sponsoring groups will discuss concrete ways to combat racism on the personal and political levels.
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The events, open to the public, will be conducted at the Stangl Stage in Flemington.
Using theater to address the topic of racial justice is one way to reach a broad audience, according to Jamie Pietrusko of the Annandale section of Clinton.
“The idea is to introduce the subject through performance,” said Pietrusko, chair of the programming committee of the Progressive Hunterdon Democrats. “It introduces the subject in a way that would be more effective than a lecture.”
Some people might wonder why racism should be a concern in Hunterdon County, where the Census Bureau estimates that 92 percent of the population is white.
But that disparity makes the issue even more crucial, according to Catherine Riihimaki of Annandale, administrator of Indivisible Garden State Values.
“I think, because (the county is) so white, it’s important to bring it up,” Riihimaki said. “Just because you don’t have racial diversity doesn’t mean you should address racial injustice. In fact, it may be even more important.
“It’s important for all of us to empathize with people who have different life experiences than us,” Riihimaki said. “I’ve see the ‘me, first’ mentality. That shows a level of privilege.”
Pietrusko said the idea for a theatrical project arose within her group months ago. “A group of us wanted to shift the focus of the progressive movement from economic injustice to anti-racism,” she said.
Representatives of thee group came together to discuss how to raise awareness about the issue. “We wondered how could we engage respectfully with people,” Pietrusko said. “We wanted to create an open space for conversation.”
Pietrusko said the organizations knew of the work of Meta Theatre Co. and thought the company would be an ideal forum for promoting the cause.
Meta Theatre’s mission
Meta Theatre Co. was founded five years ago to engage audiences and encourage social change, according to co-artistic director Caroline Hann of Clinton Township.
Hann explained that he company was influenced by the work of scholar Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, who developed the theory of intersectionality.
“Intersectionality means that we can’t just be put on one box, depending on race or class or gender,” Hann said. “Each of us is as the intersection of all those. The question becomes how to use that to enact positive change.”
Meta Theatre was also modelled after the Theatre of the Oppressed, created in the 1970s in Brazil by Augusto Boal.
The performers often work with inmates from the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in Clinton.
The Oct. 24 program will be a cabaret-style show.
“It’s interactive, so we’ll be incorporating the experiences of the audience members,” Hann said. “We’ll use improvisation to talk about the impact of racial injustice on a community.”
The second program on Nov. 9 will build on that performance. “Because the material will be different from audiences are used to seeing in a theater, we want the audience to have time to absorb it,” Hann said.
At that time, the actors will serve as facilitators to discuss the performance. Members of the sponsoring organizations will also be on hand to open a dialogue about the concrete, practical steps that can be taken.
Riihimaki said that she hoped the programs are only a beginning.
“We are sending a message. We want a government that works effectively for everyone. We stand with immigrants. We stand with neighbors who are people of color,” she said.
“This is one step,” Pietrusko said. “It’s an important step, but it’s just the start. We’d like to hold many different kinds of events, so that race becomes an ongoing part of the conversation.”
Hann admitted that she had no idea what to expect from this series. “It could be that very intense feelings will come up,” she said. “We try to make our productions entertaining. We use humor, when it’s appropriate.
“My intent has always been that theater is a pathway to justice,” Hann added. “We don’t expect everyone to change magically with a flip of the switch. But if we can get people thinking, that’s a successful show.”
To get involved with the Hunterdon anti-racism series
WHAT: Performers from the Meta Theatre Co., supported by local activist groups, present an interactive theater piece to raise awareness racial justice. A follow-up session deals with formulating practical ways to combat racism
WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 24, and Thursday, Nov. 9
WHERE: Stangl Stage, Mine Street and Stangl Road, Flemington